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What Rupert Wrought

In the mid-seventies, Murdoch recognized New York as the bargain of the century. Now it’s his city, we only live here.

Rupert Murdoch attending a power breakfast in Manhattan, 1977.  

The Murdoch-ization of America has never felt so irreversible. At any given moment, according to Business Week, one in every five households is tuned into a show produced or delivered by News Corp.; meanwhile, Fox News is crushing CNN, the Weekly Standard is running the Bush administration, and three of the top six books now on the New York Times’ best-seller list were published by Regan Books. And in perhaps the most unmistakable sign yet that New York’s preeminent right-wing robber baron has become an entrenched member of the city’s Establishment, Rupert Murdoch recently purchased the late Laurance Rockefeller’s Fifth Avenue triplex for $44 million. In cash.

New York existed before Murdoch. But unlike the staggered, crisis-plagued ascent of fellow tycoon Donald Trump, his rise has been so steady that it has come to appear almost inevitable. It’s easy to forget that his entry into American consciousness was a reckless bet on the future of New York.

The year was 1976, and evidence of the city’s decline was everywhere: subway cars bruised with graffiti, arson fires that swallowed whole ghetto blocks, soaring murder rates, and annual six-figure job losses. The city put on its best face for the Democratic convention, hastily enacting an anti-loitering law that enabled cops to round up most of the prostitutes in the vicinity of Madison Square Garden. For a few days anyway, even Times Square was more or less hooker-free. But the area soon returned to being America’s most infamous erogenous zone.

Around the country, cartoonists poked fun at New York in its apocalypse: The city was a sinking ship, a zoo where the apes were employed as zookeepers, a stage littered with overturned props. Central Park had become a running joke in Johnny Carson’s nightly monologues (“Some Martians landed in Central Park today . . . and were mugged”). The syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak understated the matter considerably when they wrote, “Americans do not much like, admire, respect, trust, or believe in New York.”

It’s easy now to look back at this moment and see it for what it was—a classic market bottom. But at the time, few recognized it as such. One man who did was Murdoch. Where others saw a city in financial distress, he saw a place ripe for entrepreneurship. Where others saw a failed experiment in social democracy, he saw an opening for simple supply-and-demand capitalism.

Murdoch fixed his sights on the once-proud New York Post, which would become the beachhead of his American conquest. It was there that he perfected the mix of hard conservative politics and unapologetic tabloid values with which his name would become synonymous. How long did it take to create a template for the world we’re living in? About three months: the strange, violent summer of 1977.

When news of Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of the New York Post first hit the Daily News and the New York Times—the sleepy Post had been scooped on its own sale—on November 20, 1976, the city’s response was a collective “Rupert who?”

He’d materialized in New York overnight: a thick, sad-eyed, harried-looking fellow with an outsize head and furry eyebrows, more day laborer than press lord by the looks of him. Murdoch’s father, Sir Keith, had been a legendary newspaperman himself, the proprietor of a chain of Australian dailies that were meant to be son Rupert’s inheritance. Only, by the time of Sir Keith’s death, the family had been forced to sell off almost everything, leaving Rupert, at the age of 22, a single provincial afternoon paper called the Adelaide News. In short order, Murdoch turned it into a thriving scandal sheet, and a tabloid career was launched.

By 1968, Murdoch had extended his nascent newspaper empire to London, where, among other gifts to the culture, he inaugurated the custom of running photos of topless women on the third page of his newspapers. Private Eye, the British satire magazine, dubbed him “Rupert ‘Thanks for the Mammaries’ Murdoch.”

In 1973, Murdoch made his first foray into the United States, snapping up a pair of broadsheets in San Antonio. When the news there failed to rise to the level of drama that he liked, he goosed a headline or two. KILLER BEES HEAD NORTH was one classic; the story that ran beneath it was about a species of bee with a potentially fatal sting that had been spotted minding its own business somewhere in South America.

The following year, Murdoch leaped into the world of supermarket tabloids with The National Star. He was just getting started. Installing his second wife, Anna, and their three children in a twelve-room Fifth Avenue triplex, he kept shopping. After briefly considering a few women’s magazines, Ladies’ Home Journal and Redbook among them, he decided on the Post, the oldest continuously published daily newspaper in America, one of the last living links to the country’s Founding Fathers.

By the time Murdoch arrived on the scene, the paper was in the possession of one Dorothy Schiff, who had taken it over in 1939. Initially, she’d bankrolled it for her husband, until she grew tired of him and his dilettantish editorial instincts. Schiff dumped him and turned the Post into a tabloid; through the forties, it came into its own. Under the editorship of James Wechsler, the paper specialized in crusade reporting, taking aim at the mighty Robert Moses, uncovering the human cost of his “slum clearance,” and at J. Edgar Hoover, who subsequently ordered Wechsler’s hotel room bugged and labeled him a “little rat.” The Post published a seventeen-part exposé of the foremost demagogue of the day, Senator Joseph McCarthy. Headlined SMEAR, INC.: JOE MCCARTHY’S ONE-MAN MOB, it was the first in-depth look at “the hoax of the century.”